Celebrating parallel histories of pain, redemption

Celebrating parallel histories of pain, redemption

Common bonds of slavery and freedom mark Black-Jewish seder

Congregation Beth Hatikvah Cantor Steve Wetter leads members of Fountain Baptist Church in singing, “Hinei ma tov u’manayim.” Photos by Robert Wiener
Congregation Beth Hatikvah Cantor Steve Wetter leads members of Fountain Baptist Church in singing, “Hinei ma tov u’manayim.” Photos by Robert Wiener

Some 200 members of Summit’s Black and Jewish communities celebrated their common bonds of liberation from slavery as they joined in an April 5 seder at Congregation Beth Hatikvah.

Rabbi Hannah Orden of the Reconstructionist synagogue, and the Rev. Vernon Williams, assistant pastor of the Fountain Baptist Church, acted as co-leaders of the holiday observance, intertwining the history of the ancient Israelites’ freedom from bondage in Egypt with narratives of Africans kidnaped, packed densely into ships headed west, and forced to work in brutal captivity.

Beginning in 1619, when 20 Africans were transported to the English colony of Jamestown, Va., some 12.5 million Africans were captured in their native lands and shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean. Approximately 10.5 million survived the subhuman voyage, to the Americas. Their servitude lasted until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

The two congregations opened the evening, just as they had last year, with the singing of “Hinei ma tov u’manayim, shevet achim gam yachad,” (“How good it is when we dwell together as brothers and sisters”), with Cantor Steve Wetter leading a chorus of four Baptist women. 

“For me, Passover is most about hope,” said Orden. “It is the holiday that celebrates the resilience and determination of the human spirit, even under the most terrible oppression. It is the story of a particular people in a particular time and place; it is also the universal story of the human desire to be free.”

Orden noted that the words, “Let my people go,” first uttered by Moses in the book of Exodus, have been repeated and turned into a song that was sung by African slaves as a Christian hymn. 

“It was Moses and the Exodus who gave us our lyrics,” said Williams. “We started singing about our troubles when we heard that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob delivered the Hebrew slaves. We began to have hope in the midst of our sorrow.”

“It is the story of our people and all people who have experienced oppression and liberation” read a member of the church from the pages of the Haggadah that was used at the model seder. “When we recall the story of our oppression we resolve to fight oppression everywhere.” 

Then, lifting plastic cups for the first of four glasses of wine (or, for some, grape juice), the audience members called out groups of the oppressed who are currently in need of liberation. The list included Syrians, prisoners, the homeless, immigrants, people in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community, and victims of human trafficking.

In an effort to construct an African-American holiday service parallel to Passover, members of the Fountain Baptist Church prepared printed handouts about slavery in America. Those pages, comprised of slave narratives and other historical facts, were interspersed throughout the seder as responsive readings with passages from the Haggadah. 

The African-American presentation began with a discussion of “our rich heritage,” pointing out that scientifically advanced civilizations thrived in Africa centuries before people were rounded up and enslaved.

Commenting that when people are in bondage they lose their identities and sometimes, their names, the rabbi said, “Pharaoh looked at the Israelites and saw people who might be a potential threat. He did not see them as individuals.”

A church member read from a section of the African narrative called, “Middle Passage.” It recounted the rapes, beatings, diseases, and deaths of the imprisoned blacks, who were chained and packed densely into the hulls of ships. They spent as much as three months at sea as they traveled to slave markets in the southern United States.

“Laws, statutes, and even the documents — the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — were set up as a way to control the number-one market priority, the commodity of black bodies,” a member of Beth Hatikvah read from the writings prepared by the people of Fountain Baptist. 

The attendees sang in unison a song from the Haggadah, “Avadim hayinu,” (“We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, now we are free”); sampled charoset and maror; and dipped parsley into salt water and fingers into wine and grape juice as they recited the Ten Plagues.

Finally, Orden asked individuals to share their views about hope for the future.

To one Baptist participant, the seder “gives us hope that we can come together as one.”

“What gives us hope are the current resistance movements that are going on,” presumably to the policies of the Trump administration, said a second African-American attendee.

“There is hope that the bigotry that is out there can’t be ignored anymore,” said a member of Beth Hatikvah.

After nearly three hours sitting side-by-side, reading from the Haggadah, and sampling the Jewish holiday foods and rituals, Angela and Douglas Moore of Linden said they were moved by the celebration. 

“It was a beautiful evening of fellowship and learning,” said Angela. “It was nice to spend time with our Jewish friends in Summit.”

Said Douglas: “It means hope. It means coming together. It means true fellowship with our brothers and sisters.”

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